Newsletter - November, 2000

Impact of Positive Emotion on Health: Symptoms

Paul McGhee, PhD

For the last two months, we have discussed the impact of negative emotion on survival and symptoms. There is no longer any doubt that chronic negative emotion can reduce overall wellness, worsen symptoms, and even reduce the odds of survival in the case of some illnesses. If a skill could be developed that would help disrupt the chain of health damaging events in our bodies that result from persistent anger, anxiety or depression, this would surely be a skill worth making the effort to develop.

There is very little research which directly assesses the impact of humor or laughter on symptoms or survival among people who are ill, but the power of humor to help substitute a positive for a more negative emotional state suggests that it may be worthwhile to use humor as a tool to help patients manage their emotional state in favor of more positive day-to-day moods. This is a difficult thing to do in the midst of a health crisis, but as we will see in future articles, hundreds of hospitals around the world are making the bold move to bring the therapeutic benefits of humor to patients even before all the data are in.

While little research has been done on the effect of humor and laughter upon health-related outcomes among patients, other types of positive emotion have been studied in terms of their effect on patient symptoms and survival. This month we will look at some of the research related to symptoms. Next month, we'll look at the effect of positive emotion on survival.

A generally positive and optimistic attitude has been shown to reduce the severity and frequency of occurrence of symptoms for a broad range of conditions. For example, college students with a more optimistic outlook on life were found to be in better physical health (as determined by their physicians) than their more pessimistic peers two decades later.1 More optimistic students also had fewer sick days (e.g., due to colds and flu) in the month after optimism levels were determined and fewer visits to the doctor during the following year (even when initial health status and level of depression were controlled for).2
Since an optimistic outlook on life is one way of creating more positivity in one's own life, it should be the case that more optimistic students spend a greater percentage of their time (on the average) in a positive emotional state than their more pessimistic peers. This increased level of daily positive emotion presumably boosted these students' immune system and gave them greater protection from colds and flu.

Attitudinal and emotional factors have even been linked to wound healing. For example, more optimistic patients showed the most rapid healing following an operation for a detached retina.3 Consistent with this finding, one investigator concluded, following a thorough review of research in psychoneuroimmunology, that positive emotions facilitate the healing of many kinds of wounds.4 He felt that they did this by disrupting the production of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other substances which interfere with certain steps of the healing process.

Evidence is also emerging to show that hope, like optimism, contributes to improvement of symptoms. For example, among spinal injury patients with comparable injuries, those who expressed greater hope for improvement became more mobile and coped better emotionally than those who saw their situation as hopeless.5

In a study of men with HIV infection, meetings were arranged twice a week to practice relaxation methods and talk about coping with the problems confronting them. Early results showed that these procedures delayed the onset of more serious AIDS symptoms, strengthened the immune system, and boosted the menÕs emotional resilience.6

Apart from love, there is no better tool for maintaining a positive, optimistic frame of mind in the midst of serious illness (as well as daily hassles) than your sense of humor. That is one reason why many hospitals now make an effort to build humor into the health care setting. The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to have access to your sense of humor when you are ill if you haven't cultivated it when youÕre healthy and in good spirits. If you begin building your humor coping skills now, youÕll have them when you really need them.

[Excerpt from Dr. McGhee's book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. Published by Kendall/Hunt, 1999. To order a copy by e-mail, see Click on orders. ISBN number is 7872-5797-4.]

Pun Fun

1. A psychiatrist who strongly believes in the notion of a "collective unconscious" complains that he always has trouble getting served in bars.
All the bar tenders say I'm just too ________
CLUE: What early follower of Freud believed in a collective unconscious?

2. Sign in front of a "Auto Body and Fender Repair Shop:" May we have the next ________?
CLUE: What does a man politely say to a woman he would like to dance with?

3. When the nudist colony opened just outside of town, everyone expected a great deal of media attention, but there was very little _________.
CLUE: This is a word we use to refer to the level of attention given by the news media--but it has an extra meaning here.

4. What kind of people are retread tires used for? People who are old enough to _________.
CLUE: What do people generally do when they get into their sixties?

[See below for answers.]

1. Peterson, C., et al. Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Soc ial psychology, 1988, 55, 23-27.
2. Peterson, C. & Bossio, L.M. Health attitudes: Optimism, hope, and control. In Goleman, D. & Gurin, J. (Eds.) Mind/Body medicine: How to Use Your Mind for Better Health. Yonkers, NY: Consumer Reports Books, 1993.
3. Mason, T., et al., Acceptance and healing. Journal of Religion and Health, 1969, 8, 123-142.
4. Melnechuk, T. Emotions, brain, immunity and health: A review. In M. Clynes & J. Panksepp (Eds.), Emotions and Psychopathology. New York: Plenum, 1988, 181-247.
5. Peterson & Bossio, 1993.
6. Goleman, D. & Gurin, J. What is mind/body medicine? In D. Goleman & J. Gurin, 1993.

Answers to Pun Fun
1. Jung (young).
2. Dents (dance).
3. Coverage.
4. Retire.